The Thrill of the Grill

Most mainstream press pundits are calling Memorial Day weekend the “official” start of the summer grilling season. Poppycock and all that – most of us have been grilling all year long. My family has a long standing tradition of grilling steaks on Christmas Eve, and while sometimes that means relatively balmy weather in Kansas City it certainly didn’t this year. I often fire up my weber kettles and/or bullet smokers in the snow…in fact, the only weather that really prevents me from effective BBQ work is really excessive wind. Nothing messes with an airflow smoker like having 50mph wind whipping across both the top and bottom vents.

That said, yes, we’re having a big BBQ to-do this weekend in celebration of both the Memorial Day holiday and – more importantly – TJ’s final adoption this week. Over the weekend I’ll be smoking up some beef brisket, pulled pork, pork ribs (either spare or loin back, I haven’t decided yet) and some chicken thighs. I’ll also be grilling up some standards the day of for those that prefer a burger or brautwurst to traditional BBQ…although how those people got through the invitation vetting process I have no idea.

In the interest of helping foster BBQ knowledge across the vast interwebs, here are some thoughts on how to do each of those things I’ve listed above. No real “secrets,” just common sense tips from someone that’s been doing these things for a while with a small amount of success on the competitive circuit.

First, use charcoal, preferably a name brand with no pre-embedded petroleum products involved. I’m looking at you, Match-Light. Gas grills are only acceptable when your locale forbids the use of charcoal on wood decks, and in such case you should be thinking of buying a home with a cement patio.

Use a charcoal chimney to start your fire. This is always preferred when smoking meats for hours at a time, but if you’re going to be doing some quick grilling then I guess lighter fluid is acceptable. You won’t catch me using it, though. I prefer to use the little white parrafin cubes from Weber – a couple of those can get a full chimney let with ashes showing on the corners of the top layer of charcoal in 20 minutes. Note that the new Kingsford charcoal does start faster, so be sure to empty that chimney as soon as you see the corners turning ash on the top – otherwise you’re losing valuable heat energy.

Good BBQ starts with good quality meat. That doesn’t mean you have to use Prime or Kobe beef, but buy your meat from a reputable grocer or (even better) butcher that knows something about where the meat comes from. This might not be possible for ground beef, but knowing a little something about the source of a pork shoulder or brisket that you’re going to be spending upwards of 12-16 hours (or more) with can’t hurt. Look for marbling (fat running through the muscle), not just fat on top of the meat.

Real BBQ means real wood. If at all possible, try to use something local or interesting. Those ubiquitous bags of hickory chips and chunks at Wal-Mart probably smell and taste just as appetizing as they look, but if you’ve got a wood pile with some local pecan, apple or cherry feel free to use some chunks of that. Kansas Citians can find good selections of wood at any local Ace Hardware, not to mention fine places like Backyard Bash in Parkville.

Dry Rub > Marinade. Marinading meat really doesn’t do a whole lot, while a dry rub can help give a piece of meat a tasty, attractive crust. Injecting some meats, like poultry and pork (and brisket, I guess, but I’ve not tried this) can take flavor into the middle of the product, so if you happen to be somewhere that has injecting kits (Cabelas has them) give them a whirl. Personally, I like to put a very thin layer of mustard mixed with a little steak sauce on the meat before I liberally sprinkle with dry rub – it helps the rub adhere, but don’t use so much that you end up with just a gooey mess.

With BBQ low and slow is the way to go. My Weber Smokey Mountain (WSM) smokers never get above 250. I prefer the 230 range for most meat with the exception of chicken, which I smoke around 325. The trick with BBQ is that it doesn’t really follow a prescribed time for doneness, because you’re cooking through the “done” point and into the “tender” point. A good starter rule of thumb for brisket and pork is around an hour per pound, but I find that this is really a guess – let the meat tell you when it’s done by using the “fork test.” Take a fork and stick it in the meat and give a turn. If the fork turns easily, it’s done. With a pork butt the bone should slide out easily when the pork is pull-able. This can be lengthened or shortened by the quality of the meat involved – more marbling generally means shorter cook times at the same temperature to achieve the same level of tenderness, because you don’t have to rely just on the conversion of collagen to gelatin to get tender meat when the meat is tender to begin with.

With grilling I like to have a couple of different zones on my grill, which is easily done by making the charcoal very “densely packed” on one side of the grill and more “loose” on the other side. This gives me someplace to put burgers and steaks when they’re getting close to done but their other brethren haven’t finished yet.

I’ve become a fan of parboiling…but JUST FOR BRAUTWURST. Par-boiling ribs is a quick way to be given admission to BBQ purgatory. No, for brauts I like to par-boil them in a mixture of beer or chicken stock, chopped onions and a chopped apple for just a few minutes. This ensures that the sausage is fully cooked through before burning on the outside, which can be a problem with those oh-so-tasty pineapple brauts that they sell at our local Hy-Vee stores. SO GOOD, but with pineapple ground in to the sausage they burn very easily. Put them on the “cool zone” and just get them nicely browned. And as much as it pains me to agree with Jim Belushi about anything, don’t pierce the skin…use tongs to turn those brauts.

For my burgers I – at a minimum – mix the seasonings in with the pre-ground meat. For a real burger I love to grind my own meat – I use 4 parts beef chuck roast and 1 part something else, either bacon or – get this – duck breast. YUM. Grind together, season the meat and shape into 1/2 pound patties. I make my patties 1/2 pound because they’re generally a little fattier – if you’re using leaner ground beef (which is a mistake, but it’s yours to make) the patties can be smaller.

Just some things to ponder. Have a great time on the grill – I know I will be!

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